2007 was a pretty great year for Doctor Who. Series 3 was one hell of a season that fleshed out the Tenth Doctor’s character and took the show to new heights with episodes like “Gridlock“, “42“, “Human Nature“, “Blink” and “Utopia“. And as the show prepared to launch into its fourth season in 2008, Russell T. Davies decided to send the year off with a bang in “Voyage Of Damned”, my favorite RTD era Christmas special. If “The Runaway Bride” was a step-up from Russell’s previous effort in “The Christmas Invasion“, then “Voyage Of The Damned” is a step up from “The Runaway Bride”. Russell often tried to write his Christmas specials in the vein of an action movie, and “Voyage Of The Damned” stands out as his best attempt at emulating that genre while mixing it in with some festive cheer.
Mind you, I’ve always found it ironic that the spaceship in this episode is called the ‘Titanic’, presumably to grab ratings and intrigue people with the absurd premise of the Doctor saving the Titanic in space, when Russell T. Davies took a lot more influence from “The Poseidon Adventure” than anything involving the Titanic disaster, or the James Cameron film (though I suppose you can argue poor Astrid goes the way of Jack Dawson). “Voyage Of The Damned” has a pretty fast and speedy pace, managing its time well as it shuffles from set-piece to set-piece. Like “The Poseidon Adventure”, a major thread throughout this episode is how people cope during a crisis, how it can bring out the best and the worst in them. Russell does a superb job of building up tension and maintaining it throughout the hour: whether it’s the Doctor’s failed attempts to save the ship from taking a hit, or the motley gang of survivors having to overcome increasingly deadly obstacles that causes their numbers to dwindle one by one, demoralizing them.
After the Series 3 finale, the Tenth Doctor is once again on his own, with only the TARDIS to keep him company, when he finds himself irresistibly drawn to something truly bizarre – a life-sized replica of the Titanic floating around in space. Proudly becoming a stowaway, our jovial, sharply dressed leading man decides to check it out and spend Christmas Eve rubbing elbows with space tourists. Ten is easily one of the most sociable and outgoing Doctors in NuWho, compared to some of the more introverted incarnations like Nine or Twelve, so he fits in quite well with the passengers and crew members and is able to charm them easily, with David Tennant firing on all cylinders as Ten’s bubbly self throughout this episode. When disaster strikes the ship, the Doctor does his usual thing and appoints himself leader of a small gang of survivors, convincing them to follow him and trust him to get them to safety.
A recurring character flaw that the Doctor has throughout NuWho is that he has a bad habit of overestimating his abilities and making people promises he can’t keep – this is especially emphasized and explored during the Eleventh Doctor’s tenure. The Doctor unites the survivors, pools all of his resources, and falls back on all of his wits, and despite his best efforts, he continually fails. Like Gene Hackman’s character in “The Poseidon Adventure”, Ten is steadily tortured as people he likes, people he’s responsible for drop like flies on his watch. Throughout this Christmas special, the Doctor is confronted with the harsh reality of his limitations, and he’s forced to accept the fact that sometimes, no matter what you do or how hard you try, some things are just out of your control and you just can’t win. It’s a rather cruel lesson for the Doctor to learn, and he takes the death of Astrid especially hard, partly because she died saving his life, and partly because he already lost the Master as well in the last episode.
The Doctor’s line when he fails to resurrect Astrid and he angrily rages at the unfairness of it all (“I can do anything!”) says a lot about where Ten’s character is at and where he’s heading. As a time lord wandering the universe in his big blue box, the Doctor can do so many amazing things – in the last episode, he practically became Earth’s messiah figure by harnessing the power of six billion humans – but he’s still held back by the laws of time and space and nature like everyone else is. And as much as it hurts him, that’s how it should be. We saw in the previous episode, with the Toclafane, what happens when people go too far trying to defy nature for their own ends.
“School Reunion” made it clear that there are times when the Doctor feels frustrated and tempted to break the laws of time, especially since he’s the only time lord around now – do whatever he likes and bend reality to his will to sort out the universe and get rid of any past regrets. There’s a good argument to be had about how much power the Doctor should have and how much he should intervene with nature taking its course. What Ten would like to do is obviously way too much power for one man to wield himself without going off the deep end and becoming corrupted. When Mr. Copper remarks that if he could actually choose who lives and who dies on a whim, it would make him a monster, it’s very telling that Ten says absolutely nothing to agree with him. The seeds of the Tenth Doctor’s god complex were sewn in “School Reunion”, and they grow stronger in this episode, but they won’t come to fruition for another season. While it functions well enough as a standalone Christmas special, when it comes to the Tenth Doctor’s character arc, “Voyage Of The Damned” is one of three episodes that sets the stage for “The Waters of Mars” down the line, with the other two being “The Fires Of Pompeii” and “Journey’s End“.
Since Martha has gone home and we won’t be reintroduced to Donna again until the next episode, Ten gains a temporary companion in this special by the name of Astrid Peth (pop star, Kylie Minogue). Astrid is a young waitress with plenty of wanderlust: she’s always wanted to travel, to see the stars and different planets. She comes from a pretty humble background and she’s stuck with a dead-end job, so she’s a free spirit who’s been tethered down by her circumstances. At this point, after Rose and Donna, the RTD era has mastered the art of endearing the general audience to a character by giving them relatable regrets about their thankless jobs. Astrid and the Doctor become fast friends, since he encourages her to break a few rules and live a little to live out her dreams, and their friendship makes for a pretty cute thread throughout the episode as they grow closer (with bits of ship-tease).
She’s a very loyal, warm-hearted and compassionate person, who always tries to do what she feels is right, and as the stakes ramp up, she proves to be prime companion material. The Doctor offers her a spot in the TARDIS, which – as we learned from Lynda with a Y – is practically a death sentence for a guest character (especially since the BBC would not have enough money to pay Kylie Minogue for a whole season even if they wanted to). Sure enough, Astrid winds up suffering one of the most tragic and heartbreaking fates of a one-off character in NuWho. She did nothing to deserve it, aside from repaying the kindness the Doctor did her and saving his life, dying a hero. The Doctor manages to partially restore her, so that while her mortal life is over, she can travel the universe forever as an actual spirit and see the stars. Astrid’s ascension is a bittersweet conclusion to her arc that makes the final outcome of this special quite sad and gives “Voyage Of The Damned” a good amount of weight.
Considering “Voyage Of The Damned” is centered around a bunch of humanoid aliens, rich socialites indulging in a Christmas tourist trip to experience some Earth culture, this Christmas special features a colorful cast of side characters. Something Russell T. Davies was very good at was humanizing his side characters and making them all likable figures in the limited amount of time that he had. Episodes like “Voyage Of Damned”, where good people die in increasingly heartbreaking ways, or “Midnight“, where seemingly normal people devolve into savage animals and viciously turn on the Doctor, wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective as they were if Russell didn’t have that skill.
Among the line-up, you have Foon and Morvin, a chubby married couple who are frequently mocked for their weight but are shown to have a very stable, loving, dependable marriage: they can get through anything together. All their happiness is shattered in an instant when Morvin unexpectedly dies, destroying Foon, and she basically winds up committing suicide so she can join her husband and take a Host down with her, which is pretty bleak territory for this show. In a similar vein, there’s Bannakaffalatta, a proud, red, short little man. For about half of the episode, Banna is a quirky comic relief character because of his overly long name (ever since the Slitheen, Russell liked to give his aliens overly long names for kicks, partly to see if the actors could actually pronounce them), but he’s given some depth as an allegory for minorities. Banna turns out to be a cyborg who’s hiding an important part of himself, since cyborgs are discriminated against back home, and he winds up giving his life to save the other passengers. Banna bonded quite a bit with Astrid on the trip, and like Billy Shipton’s sudden and cruel fate in “Blink“, there’s a sharp, stinging loss of what could have been with his death.
Another comic relief character who’s gradually given depth and sympathetic qualities is Mr. Copper (Clive Swift, i.e. Richard from “Keeping Up Appearances”). He’s the passenger’s guide for the voyage, the so-called Earth expert who clearly knows nothing at all about the local culture (making him a really good source of dry humor), and as it turns out, he’s a total fraud. Mr. Copper was stuck in a dead-end job for years, like Astrid was, with nothing to show for it, so he decided to head out into space with the cruise line to see the universe. The Doctor winds up helping him relocate to Earth at the end, to live out his dreams in his twilight years, which is exactly the sort of silver lining “Voyage Of The Damned” needs to wrap up this rather depressing hour of television celebrating Christmas cheer with a warm, hopeful glow.
Among all the familiar faces in this Christmas special, you’ve got Midshipman Frame (who “Being Human” fans will immediate recognize as Russell Tovey). Like several other characters in this episode, Alonso has a rather thankless and easily overlooked job, and he’s characterized early on as being pretty awkward and naive. But he winds up having a surprisingly large and important role in this episode, since he’s one of the most morally upstanding people onboard the ship. Alonso is a pretty loyal, diligent, dutiful, and courageous member of the ship’s crew, who winds up getting injured early on, discovering his captain’s treachery. He then spends the rest of the episode working around a very painful gunshot wound, keeping everyone else alive by being the Doctor’s mission control on the bridge, which is very admirable. In several ways, the Doctor and company owe Alonso their lives by the episode’s end, so Ten makes sure to include him in his ‘farewell tour’ in “The End Of Time“.
“Voyage Of The Damned” is the first appearance of Wilfred Mott, Donna’s dear old grandfather, who we’ll be seeing a lot more of for the rest of the RTD era. In two scenes, he’s written as a very proud and patriotic man, who loves the queen and is very weary of the alien invaders Britain has been seeing a lot of for the last few years: that quick cutaway gag where he’s appalled by the audacity of aliens trying to kill Her Majesty (apparently accepting the idea of a flying Titanic replica falling on Buckingham Palace with little problem) is hilarious.
Classism is something that crops up a lot during the RTD era of Doctor Who, because Russell loved discussing it, pitting the problems of the filthy rich against the problems of the working class. Rickston Slade is a notable one-off character in this special, for being a rich asshole with literally no redeeming qualities at all. He spends the whole episode constantly bitching and complaining, callously disrespecting the dead, bullying the other passengers, and focusing only on saving his own skin – to the point where he straight up leaves the other passengers to die several times. It’s not until the last act that he finally starts to become more agreeable, and even then, it’s not much of a change.
And unlike the sort of punishment you would expect a character like Rickston to get on this show, he never receives any sort of comeuppance for his selfishness. Plenty of good people die gruesomely in this episode, and he’s one of the few who’s still kicking by the end – and he’s been made even richer by the ordeal. I always laugh at Ten’s expression when Rickston actually hugs him before leaving, because the Doctor is completely transparent about how much he can’t stand him. Ten learned another hard, cynical lesson in this episode: to quote Severus Snape, life isn’t fair, and who lives and who dies in a disaster generally isn’t determined by how much of an ass they are.
Unlike the two main influences “Voyage Of The Damned” draws from (“The Poseidon Adventure” and the Titanic disaster) the doomed ship taking a hit in this episode that puts everyone in danger is not a tragic accident due to the circumstances, but a deliberately staged attempt to bring it down – an act of sabotage – which provides the episode with a mystery hook for the Doctor to solve. After the Weeping Angels in “Blink” two stories ago, we’re once again treated to evil, demonic angel imagery (this time from Davies) with the Heavenly Hosts. The Hosts make for some genuinely creepy sleeper agents, robot assassins who are used to purge any survivors who weren’t killed during the initial asteroid strike – and their freakiest scene has to be the one where they murder a bunch of poor, unsuspecting cooks in the ship’s kitchens.
Like I mentioned in “The Runaway Bride”, Russell is pretty good at giving classic Who villains an update for the revival – we just saw him do that with the Master in the previous three-parter – but his original villains are a lot more of a mixed bag. “Voyage Of The Damned” has Max Capricorn, who honestly feels like a James Bond antagonist – a hammy, bombastic, unsubtle villain who feels a bit out of place in this episode, and more than a bit cringy (though thankfully nowhere near on the level of the Slitheen or the Absorbaloff). While his presence is foreshadowed throughout the episode, Max only appears in one scene where Ten does the traditional evil villain monologue for him, to his amusement, and works out his scheme. Like Cassandra’s plot in “The End Of The World”, Max’s goals in this episode are all about money, with a pinch of revenge – trying to cash in and destroy his former business partners with a good shipwreck. He also turns out to be mostly made of metal, like Banna, revealing that discrimination against cyborgs is so bad that even the rich are harmed by it.
“Voyage Of The Damned” is directed by James Strong, who previously helmed “The Satan Pit” and “Daleks In Manhattan“, and he does a fine job of making “Voyage Of The Damned” dazzle with a lively, worldly tone. The whole climax – from Astrid’s death, to Ten flying with the Hosts to get to the bridge, to the Doctor saving the ship from hitting the Earth – is especially stunning to watch. The set designers do wonders creating a variety of different environments for this episode that both emulate the classy, nautical setting of an old fashioned cruise-liner, and establish the sort of run-down, grungy, industrial aesthetic you would expect to find on a spaceship. Doctor Who’s production values continue to improve with each passing season, and the establishing shots of the Titanic in space, orbiting the Earth and entering the atmosphere, have to be some of the best CGI we’ve seen from the Mill so far in the series. They have a bit less luck with the Hosts: the shots of the Hosts trying to hit people with their halos never quite manage to look convincing.
Murray Gold is once again called to write another original song for the series, “The Stowaway“, and it’s a bouncy, upbeat number, brimming with Christmas cheer. The Doctor Who theme song gets a rocking new arrangement in this episode – filled with bold, bombastic electric guitars – starting a new tradition that each NuWho Doctor gets their own rendition of the theme. I only wish Ten’s variation had been written sooner, since it’s a shame that the show only got to use it for one season. “Voyage Of The Damned” is easily one of Murray Gold’s best scores in the series – it’s constantly whimsical, wintry, adventurous, and enchanting, and it really soars in the last act. Murray complies the highlights in “Voyage Of The Damned Suite“, featuring variations of “All the Strange Creatures”, “The Doctor Forever”, “The Stowaway” and “Astrid’s Theme”.
“Voyage Of The Damned” is my favorite Christmas special from the RTD era, partly because it’s a lot of good fun, and partly because I feel like it nicely encapsulates a lot of the best things the Tenth Doctor’s tenure has to offer.
* “You dreamt of another sky. New sun, new air, new life. A whole universe teeming with life. Why stand still when there’re all that life out there?”
* “We’re not good enough for that lot. They think we should be in steerage” “Well, can’t have that, can we?” It’s always good to see Ten’s savage side come out.
* “Now, human beings worship the great god Santa, a creature with fearsome claws, and his wife Mary. And every Christmas Eve, the people of the UK go to war with the country of Turkey. They then eat the Turkey people for Christmas dinner like savages”.
* “Bad name for a ship. Either that or this suit is really unlucky”.
* “Are you all right?” “No thanks to that idiot” “The steward just died” “Then he’s a dead idiot” Hot damn, Rickston.
* “I’m the Doctor. I’m a Time Lord. I’m from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I’m 903 years old and I’m the man who’s going to save your lives and all six billion people on the planet below. You got a problem with that?”
* “Rather ironic, but this is very much in the spirit of Christmas. It’s a festival of violence. They say that human beings only survive depending on whether they’ve been good or bad. It’s barbaric!”
* “Actually, that’s not true. Christmas is a time of peace and thanksgiving and… oh, what am I on about? My Christmases are always like this”.
* “You, Bannakaffalatta. Look, can I just call you Banna? It’s going to save a lot of time” “No, Bannakaffalatta!” The little dude will not tolerate people blaspheming his name.
* “Oh, Rickston, I forgot. Did you get that message?” “No. What message?” “Shut up!” Savage Ten making another appearance in this episode.
* Well, Morvin and Foon just had a genuinely sweet, heartwarming moment reaffirming the strength of their marriage – which means they’re definitely goners now.
* “What happened? Did they find a doughnut?” Rickston, you sassy bitch.
* “You can even get married” “Marry you?” “Well, you can buy me a drink first” The Ninth Doctor would approve.
* “Mr. Copper, this degree in Earthonomics, where’s it from?” “Honestly? Mrs. Golightly’s Happy Travelling University and Dry Cleaners”.
* “Just think, Foon. What would he want, eh?” “He don’t want nothing. He’s dead!” For some reason, Debbie Chazen’s delivery of that line always makes me chuckle.
* “No more!” The War Doctor approves.
* “I’m sort of unemployed now. I was thinking the blue box is kind of small, but I could squeeze in it, like a stowaway” Aww.
* “Mr. Copper, look after her. Astrid, look after him. Rickston, er, look after yourself” Well, he can definitely do that.
* “Mr. Frame, please, this is for the Doctor. He’s gone down there on his own, and I, I can’t just leave him. He’s done everything he can to save us. It’s time we did something to help him” Aww.
* “I have men waiting to retrieve me from the ruins and enough off-world accounts to retire me to the beaches of Penhaxico Two, where the ladies, so I’m told, are very fond of… metal” Oh my lord.
* “Mr. Capricorn! I resign!”.
* Russell indulges in another bit of messiah imagery for Ten, when he soars with the Heavenly Hosts on Christmas morning, as the savior of everyone left onboard the Titanic. I like Ten as much as the next guy, but the Christ comparisons are still a bit of a weird and awkward fit for his character. Besides, being space Jesus is already Superman’s territory.
* “You’re kidding me. That’s something else I’ve always wanted to say: Allonsy, Alonso!”
* “Don’t you dare, you aliens! Don’t you dare!”
* “There’s not enough left. The system was too badly damaged. She’s just atoms, Doctor. An echo with the ghost of consciousness. She’s stardust”.
* “Mr. Copper, a million pounds is worth fifty million credits” “Then… I’ve got money” “Yes, you have”.